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You Might be a Pharisee If …

Interested in a quick and easy way to reject a person with whom you don’t see eye to eye? It’s quite simple … just call them a pharisee. If you think someone is being “legalistic,” than they are just a pharisee. If someone won’t embrace the “new move of God,” then they have a “pharisee spirit.” If someone likes traditions or deep high-church liturgy, they are a pharisee. It’s all the rage these days, you see, to simply call someone a pharisee if you don’t agree with them or they don’t agree with you. And there’s bonus points if you both call each other pharisees, especially if you get the first shot in.

Seriously, I think I’ve heard this throughout most of my life. Any time you wanted to dismiss someone’s opinion, you simply had to call them a pharisee. Never mind the fact that most of the time I think this was probably just a self-righteous way of trying to take a christological higher ground. After all, Jesus was 100% opposed to the pharisees because the pharisees were all so evil, right? So despite the fact that there’s a great deal of pride behind this self-righteous passive aggressive thinking, it’s also a bit misleading in regards to who the pharisees actually were.

You might be a pharisee if …

  • You are a Jewish person living in the first century (or prior to it). Historians aren’t entirely sure of when the Pharisee party really got its start, but there’s likely coming from the Hasidim (think Maccabean revolt).
  • You are a Jewish person who was committed to the Law being obeyed as it was interpreted by the Scribes.
  • You are a Jewish person who was committed to keeping the ritual laws and tithing.
  • You are a Jewish person who believed in the resurrection of the dead (as opposed to the Sadducees).
  • You are a very pious Jewish person living in the first century who does your best to obey God’s commands.

Do you get my point? I think the term “pharisee” gets thrown around so much that we sometimes overlook the actual group Jesus interacted with so much. We overlook that not all Pharisees were the enemy either. Remember, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5) and the Pharisees were far more complex than just being  a bunch of “judgmental hypocrites.” Summarizing this point well, Stephen Westerholm writes,

“Luke’s Pharisees present a more complex picture. In part this is because they appear in Acts as well, where they are at times comparatively sympathetic to the Christian movement (Acts 5:33-39; Acts 25.14-15″>25:14-15; Acts 26.6-7″>26:6-7, Acts 26.22-23″>22-23; Acts 28.20″>28:20).” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall, 614)

So while I would have no problem recommending Larry Osborne’s new book, Accidental PhariseeI want to remind you Osborne’s concern is about you being a pharisee. It’s not about you trying to figure out who is a pharisee so you can attach that label to those who disagree with you. We need to ask ourselves, “Am being a pharisee here?” more than make statements like, “You are such a pharisee!”

Of course there are people who have very, very, very similar characteristics of the pharisees. Some of those people are sitting right next to you every Sunday or going to your small group or even reading this blog (gasp!). I just hope you’ll remember not everyone who disagrees with you does so because they are a pharisee and that good hermeneutics requires that you do your best from being anachronistic when reading the Gospels and studying about the Pharisees. Not everything that you may think about the Pharisees may be true. And not everyone who disagrees with you is one either.  

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Luke Geraty has been lead pastor of Trinity Christian Fellowship for the past six years and is a member of the Society of Vineyard Scholars. Interested in missional theology within the rural context, Luke loves all things espresso, hockey, hip hop, and fly fishing (what a weird combo!). He and his wife have four children. He blogs regularly at ThinkTheology.org.